IT ALL started in the autumn of 1981 with a phone call to Doug Scott:
'Know any good objectives in the Gangotri?'
'Bhagirathi III, youth.'
'How do you spell it?'
'Buy a map.'
'How many people for it?'
'Two for adventure, four for laughs. Best of luck.'
The map arrived in September, permission in November, paid for by December. Doug's photos of the peak arrived a few days later. Too late and too expensive for us to back out at that stage. Then in 'Mountain 84' George Bettembourg said: 'The South Pillar of Bhagirathi III is also very impressive; an El Cap with a Droites north face on top at 6000 m’.
I'd failed on El Cap and struggled on the Droites, and that was at its normal altitude. It didn't bode well but we were too far down the road to turn back at that stage. Maybe it had an easy side, or somebody would do it before us. But nobody did. So Bob Barton and I settled for adventure and in September 1982 found ourselves camped on the meadows at Tapovan. A few days later another tent had been pitched below the face proper and by 15 September it was stocked and we were lying on our backs looking at this damned great SW Pillar which loomed over us. We looked and debated, studied it and talked about it and tried to see it from different angles but no matter what we did there appeared to be a line that would go. Our excuses would have to be higher up.
So we flogged up with loads; up stuff like the coal-bings of Bob's native Barnsley. Shale screes that slipped and moved and fell and seemed like the biggest treadmill in the world. The photographs we had showed a nice snow gully leading to the foot of the pillar but that was during the monsoon and that was long past. The only climbing on this foul brown stuff was a pitch below the granite screes under the pillar proper. A gully loose and unpleasant enough to be a Creag Meaghaidh in summer. The next day another load then we moved into, or rather onto, this scree slope. The Brown Tower we called it, gracing a lump of shale sticking to the granite with an overblown title.
As it was still early a closer investigation of the route was called for, so laden with the best in modern /protection and cheating gear, we clanked to below the first wall. I led off leftwards toward the edge up clean cracked slabs wearing rock-boots in the warm afternoon sun. Then Bob took over and headed back right: first a pendulum, then a thin aid crack and the gradual realisation that not only did our route look good, the climbing promised to be excellent. And even enjoyable. We left the ropes in place and went back down to our bivi site in a different frame of mind.
The next day we jumared back and I started off again. Even better than before: superb cracks and slabs, aid and free terrace where we soloed up to the next wall. The following pitch, had it been in Britain, would have made 'Classic Rock'. Up a slab to a slanting groove and runners; bridge up that to where it closed, then out left, hand-traverse a flake to a stepped, tapered crack with tiny flake holds. 50 m of perfect, magic climbing onto more broken ground where snow-filled grooves in rock boots dampened our high spirits. We re-organised our ropes oil the way down to conserve them as much as possible.
The following day saw us up the ridge and into the obvious large steep recess. I perched on a block in the middle of a snowfield in the sun while Bob, now double booted, aided a steep and ice-filled crack in the shade. That finished our available rope; seven in all had then been placed and all the climbing gear was at the high point so we headed for home. But then, as if to remind us the Himalaya are not all fun, a faint roar came from high on our right. As we looked tiny black specks in the sky grew and whined, then I was running about looking for shelter while huge blocks obliterated themselves and anything else they came into contact with. Although the rock-fall had started well to the right of our line it had been so big it swept a huge area of the pillar. We resolved to keep well to the left.
Next day we returned to base in the usual perfect weather. Two days later, back up at our advance camp, we were stocked up and all set to commit ourselves to the route. Food and fuel for twelve days, Goretex bivi gear and a big blue Forrest haul bag. Our 8 ropes, 40 pegs, Friends, nuts and krabs were already high on the climb. That afternoon it snowed and by noon the next day no let up was in sight so we trudged back to base. Bad tempered with the snow, the weather the glacier and the let down of having got all psyched up then going nowhere.
Four days later we were back at the Brown Tower. If the initial screes had been bad previously, they were now desperate, masked by a foot of fresh powder. Our sacks were huge, the lowest fixed rope cut by stone-fall and some of our gear, which had been left below the rope above on the wall but unattached, was under 5 ft of snow. We dug until dark then bivvied. We had a Goretex tent with us but not its poles. The idea was that it could be suspended from a wall and used in an emergency. That evening it snowed and we tried it out and it was a disaster. The rock above us was not steep enough and the tent drooped and flapped and was worse than sleeping in the open.
28 September A dawn start. As Bob dug for a still-buried jumar I went up the first rope with a big sack and brought up the haul bag which weighed about 70 lbs. It was really exhausting standing on a small, awkward stance and inevitably it got completely stuck under a roof. Bob eventually got all his gear together and came up and freed it. The next haul was as bad as the anchors were too low.Above, the blocky terrace was now deep in powder and getting the haul up it was a real trial. Three pitches of sheer exhaustion. One of us would haul while the other accompanied our fat friend, co-ordinating a pull and a lift so that it heaved and flopped its way through the snow leaving a trail like that of a beached whale. On the next two steep ropes Bob went first while I collected the ropes and worked a back rope. Combined tactics which worked better specially as Bob used an efficient form of body hoisting.
On the fourth rope it started to snow heavily and this was the worst jumar. At first it was free, then' over a sharp roof, then up curved slabs whose angle continually varied so it was dusk by the time we reached the more broken ridge above. We were utterly knackered but fortunately a bivi site was fairly easily found. Two ledges, one above the other and a ready made recess to cook in.
29 september Unable to face the prospect of more load moving, we decided to put up some more rope and try to find a higher ledge. We soloed carefullly up a few hundred feet to the next rope where an exciting swing across a snowfield and an elastic jumar led to the high point. My lead and up and right into the sun was first priority, mixed free and aid to a detached block. Then Bob had a thin aid crack in a vague corner system which he finished in the snow. There appeared to be a reasonable snow ledge down to our right so I abseiled and pendulumed down to inspect it. It was a strange feeling heading down into the gloom hoping we'd judged correctly about our position and the ledge's existence. We were working from a photo that had more snow than the face held now. But it was there and looked OK so I swing back and down to the Steps and Bob.
30 September We decided to move everything to Pendulum Ledge. As first away I went to the high point then down to the snow, sorting out the ropes so we could come up directly next time. Bob arrived and told me the ropes (below) had to change from abseil to prussick, or vice-versa. We both did another trip and cleared the rope behind us. We managed to cut reasonable ledges and the anchors were quite good. That night though there was more heavy snow and Bob wasn't too happy as it all funnelled down behind him and pushed him off the ledge. It bitched about the stone I've got to curl around so we are all square in the suffering stakes.
1 October As usual, up with the first light. Trying to make break fast and get organised without actually leaving the warmth of my bag. Fortunately we've got two stoves which allow us a degree of independence. It's two hours before we get away from the ledge. My feet were really cold; the plastic boots were good but the condensation wet my socks and I couldn't seem to get them dry. However, movement soon restored circulation and a rope-length above the bivi I started on a new pitch. It was getting steeper as I climbed round big blocks and snow ledges but after half a rope I stopped on a foothold ledge but by good anchors. Above it looked hard with no stopping places. It was a wide, ice choked crack which gave hard aid climbing with occasional free moves. Everything that was cleared fell on me and Bob didn't seem too pleased about using tied-off blades and RP's in vague cracks. It was a long pitch and when I eventually moved up it was to a semi-hanging stance. It was easy to clean though, most of the gear pulled out by hand. I told Bob that it looked desperate and he grinned and agreed, happy to have led what was probably the hardest aid pitch we'd encountered so far.
We were by then half-way up the side of the obvious flake/ pillar and still in the shade. The route was to our left in a big open corner in the sun. The ramp I tried first was deep in cold powder so I used big nuts up one side of a big flake and down the other to reach the ramp further out. A few lay-back moves on pegs at foot level took me to the main corner. It was a succession of small corners in the main fault and they were well supplied with perfect cracks. All I had to do was unearth them, in with a nut, clip on an etrier and move up to eventually reach a foot-square ledge. Bob came up and cleaned the pitch then we went down, well satisfied with the day's progress. The snow started as we reached the ledge and continued well into the night.
2 October The ropes were snowed up and had to be cleared as I went up. At one point a clamp slipped, its teeth iced up. This frays my nerves, it's gripping enough without any added excitement. The ropes hang away from the line we followed and go up blank walls. Not even a hint of a feature to grab should things go wrong. Even if you know you could do nothing anyway, that vague hope lies at the back of your mind. The last diagonal rope wasn't too tricky either. Then Bob was making his way up the main corner, and as he reached the sun the snow he cleared shimmered and danced in the vague updraughts. So I told him to pose and sweep a ledge clear as I got my camera ready. As he posed I clicked and at the same time saw through the lens a black object fly towards me. The stone was caught on film. It was also caught in a sleeping-bag where it had ripped through a layer of Goretex and a layer of nylon. I spent the evening patching this with a poly-bag and medical tape. The down danced and shimmered in the evening light but I didn't feel quite so inspired by it!
Anyway Bob ran out all the rope and we were reunited at the top of the flake/pillar where we had hoped to find a good flat ledge but we couldn't see any. Disappointed, we ran out another rope up broken ground then a stone-fall puts the only half-decent spot on top of the pillar out of the reckoning. We went down early for a few hours in the sun.
3 October We moved all the gear to Disappointment. Bob took the haul on the second trip and I retrieved all the ropes. The jumaring was hard and any stone knocked from above set my heart racing. 9 mm isn't too thick at the best of times but when hanging on it in any kind of stone-fall it's positively microscopic! By early afternoon we had built two poor platforms about 30 ft apart in the shelter of the steep upper wall, collected snow for water and eaten our usual lunch of chocolate and dried fruit, so we went climbing. The line of broken ground we were on slanted up right to an easier broken area but it collected all the rubbish from the snowfield above and was scarred with rockfall. I started up a chimney in the wall above. It was steep but perfect for back and foot but gradually it shallowed and steepened till it all faded out in a bulging wall. But when I reached over there was a perfect flake. It seemed loose but it was that or nothing so I swung out, rock boots scraping on the warm granite, and pulled up and out and there was another jug and then a thin crack took me on aid to a foothold stance in the middle of nowhere. The only view below my feet was the Gangotri glacier. Bob's pitch up and left to the next broken terrace was a complete contrast; scarry loose on huge blocks. A pitch above took us to the longed-for Good Ledges.
4 October Took everything to Good Ledges after a cramped night; luckily we had two complete sets of brewing gear. First we made a trip with our sacks then the next time I took the haul bag and Bob collected the ropes. While I was sunning myself at the Bivi Bob called something so I went down a pitch and hauled up a couple of ropes for him and took them back up with me. Bob arrived a short time later in a foul mood about something. Was it me, the ropes or what? We both sat in the sun in silence and glowered into the distance radiating our displeasure. But neither of us could sustain the tension needed for a fight or an argument and eventually somebody said: 'Let's fix a few ropes', and the moment passed.
My pitch was easy then Bob's got harder and steeper up a chimney line. It had a time-consuming roof blocking it and it seemed held together by ice. When I joined Bob he was crouched in a tiny niche but lashed to the mountain by a superb belay. We were both grinning and happy again. The following pitch was equally good with bridging moves out of the niche, then up a corner system but gradually it steepened and I moved onto aid, but where it forked I took the wrong line and had to tension left to a better crack. An exciting manoeuvre at 20,000 ft when you're going off the smallest R.P. Although the crack was good initially it soon ran out as did my gear and my neck. A ledge on the right saved the day then we went for a pleasant night on the ledges below.
5 October From our high point another 30 ft led to a half-decent ledge but Bob carried on up the final headwall to run out all his rope. I tried to go straight up the wall above him but sobn came back, it was colder now and I was climbing like a slug in double boots. So I moved left along a flake to the edge of the pillar and reached blind round a corner and found a wide crack. In with a No. 4 Friend, clip on, swing round and into a line; amazing stacked flakes and wide cracks. It was an incredible situation perched on the very edge with a 3000 ft drop on the left. Then it ended, the cracks, the flakes and the granite and I was on a shale ledge trying to construct a belay. Bob's pitch was a complete and utter contrast. The rock was brown and loose with weird granitic intrusions and snaking white quartzy seams. It wasn't too technical but very unpleasant so we decided to quit and move up to Last Granite Ledge with all the gear and spent the rest of the day doing that. It was not such a good spot, more exposed and much smaller, part rock and part ice. My feet hung in space and the other ledge sloped out. We were both fairly unhappy with very cold feet at night.
6 October Moved up and added a further pitch. At first I tried to climb the ice margin but it was too thin and hollow so I returned to the rock. Again the rock was poor and protectionless. It was wearing rather than difficult. We hacked two ledges out of the rock at a less steep section. It was so soft it could be cut with an axe. The anchors were numerous but useless.
Now that we were on the upper icefields we decided to go Alpine style for the top so we reorganised the gear. We kept the two best ropes, the krabs, the Friends and a selection of nuts and pegs. The rest was all tied together and packed in the haul-sack which was bound up as tight as possible with another rope. I went to the edge of the face on our left while Bob stayed to photograph. Neither of us had ever thrown away so much money before. The mist swirled round the face and I photographed Brocken spectres for a while. When it cleared I hurled the sack as far into space as I could. It bounced once at 100 ft then disappeared from sight. For a long time nothing happened when a dull thud rolled up from below; then a tiny dot appeared on the lower icefield in its own powder avalanche, it jumped the bergschrund then stopped. The only thought was what a time it takes to fall free for 2500 ft. What a long time to think about it if you blow it from here. I tended to take a lot more care with the ropes for a while after that.
19. Bhagirathi III. The British route on SW ridge with bivouac sites. The north ridge is the left skyline Article 14 Photo : A. Fyffe
20. The west ridge of Bhagirathi I viewed from the advanced base camp of the British expedition 1983. Article 15 Photo: John Mothersele
Then the snow came. A solid grey cloud swept Kedarnath and the Gangotri and soon enveloped the Bhagirathis and us. Bob made a lean-to with the tent and I lay in my bivi bag. The snow was heavier this time and the wind bitterly cold. Late that evening it cleared a bit and we had our meal in the cold grey light that filtered through the cloud. It was like winter in Scotland.
7 October A clear morning and less to organise but our packs felt enormous. The leader took the light and the second jumared with the heavier. We led three pitches each then changed over. Each pitch seemed the same as the previous one: hard black ice covered with cold fresh powder and occasional lumps of rock to pretend to belay on. We worked up and left near the edge of the ice while small powder avalanches scoured the centre. There is little to occupy the mind, calves scream, shoulders ache and nerves twitch. Bob says 'Careful kid, this belay owes more to imagination than science'. How can he come out with phrases like that I wonder, while all I can do is grunt? After seven pitches we reach the ridge which runs up from the apex of the face to our left. Here at least the snow was better, a kickable crust over the ice. In gathering gloom and cloud a patch of broken rock below us offered a possible stopping place so we roped down to it and constructed two ledges. For the first time we were bivving on the same level. We went to sleep in a light drifting of snow after the usual meal of brews and corned beef.
8 October After a drawn-out start I finished off my pitches and Bob headed for the summit ridge. It's not really like the Droites, more like Les Courtes here. The expression 'Today's the day, boy. Today's the day' runs through my head like a chant. I think it comes from the film of Fitzroy but couldn't really remember. It's the sentiment I like anyway.
And then it is it. Bob belayed on the highest spot around but all it really means to me is someplace to take my pack off at and have a rest. We take the usual photographs and I give Bob the Indian flag to hold (our L.O. had presented us with it) but nobody can remember which way up it goes. We compromise and hold it vertically.
More bad weather was coming in fast but we didn't know which way to go. Various Indian climbers had told us that the east side of Bhagirathi III was an easy snow and glacier climb but it was obviously a different B III from the one we were on. The face behind was steep and shitty and the ridges sharp and heavily corniced so we went back along the north ridge and started down that. By trying to keep to its east side we could go down in the shelter of the cornice but the snow was bad and only very occasionally could we get down to any solid ice. For a couple of pitches we tried the other side but we were in the teeth of the gale there. The slope was open and steep, the snow breakable crust over stuff like granulated sugar. I couldn't see more than 20 ft and everything was icing up. There was no place to stop and put on extra gear. Below belays were so awful that waiting while Bob went through was nerve-racking. We couldn't see the cornices on our left and to the right the slope disappeared in the grey of the cloud.
After a few hundred feet of that we cut back to underneath the cornice. It was still scary but at least sheltered and besides we had no option but to carry on down. At dusk we found a vague trough where we could lie down so we bivvied, tied to axes hammered into honeycombed ice and slowly drifting under in the lee of the rotting cornice.
That was the worst night; my feet defied sleepers, Pramilene and rubbing. The sleeping-bag was wet as powder drifted into every hole in the bivvi bag and my breath soaked the top. We were looking forward now to the civilization of base and meeting other people. I was forced to ask Bob if this length of time on a route with him constituted sensory deprivation or solitary confinement. He was not too amused.
9 October The first day on the route when we can wake and get ready in the sun. This however soon turns the snow damp and heavy as we continued down the ridge to the col between B. Ill and B. II. After a few pitches we angled down and right onto the face. It consists of vertical shale walls separated by easy angled
terraces of fine scree and sticky mud patched with the recent snows. Solid anchors were so hard to find and the abseils awkward to arrange. Soon the ropes became stiff with mud and our sacks would tip us over backwards on the free sections. It was cloudy and snowing again by noon and the way difficult to see. No sooner had we decided to unrope than it had to go back on again. The day seemed to go on for ever with the glacier staying the same distance below.
At last the angle eased off and we had to climb down over loose scree and polished slabs. Zigzagging down, living on our nerves till we stumbled onto the glacier after another 12 hour day. Darkness found us lost in a maze of crevasses so we bivvied on the first flat bit of ice around.
9 October Walked back to base down the east branch of the Chaturangi glacier. Food and fuel all gone but some Indians at Nandanban fed us. Our feet ached with the constant downhill pounding and we dulled them with handfuls of painkillers. We reached our tents in the dark, the route behind us at last.